In his Independence Day address on Tuesday, September 21, Leader of the Opposition Johnny Briceño had said that crime stalks Belize and never before have Belizeans been forced to mourn more grievously and more frequently.

Many would agree, as the murder count for 2010, with three months still to go in the year, has already surpassed the total count of 97 murders for the whole of 2009, and a frustrated citizenry continues to call for effective solutions. Will amendments to the crime laws help? Do the measures passed in the House of Representatives on Friday, September 24, go far enough?

As we have reported previously, the intent is to increase the penalties for crimes such as wounding, grievous harm, abandonment of a child under the age of seven, negligent harm, robbery, attempted robbery, and burglary.

Specific changes are being proposed to the Crime Control laws and the Criminal Justice laws, the Criminal Code, the Firearms Act (with stiffer penalties for even first-time offenders), the Supreme Court of Judicature laws, as well as to Families and Children Act.

However, one of the most contentious legislative measures that the House was asked to pass was the “Interception of Communications Bill.” This would enable the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to go to court to get approval for the interception of e-mails, phone calls, etc., in order to use the information in criminal prosecutions. The proposal has led to fears of intrusion in the communications of private citizens.

Johnny Briceño, the current PUP leader and rep for Orange Walk Central, and Said Musa (Fort George rep) engaged the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) in a heated debate on this and other issues. Missing from the Opposition benches in the National Assembly were Mark Espat (Albert rep), Cordel Hyde (Lake I rep) and Florencio Marin, Jr. (Corozal Southeast rep).

Briceño said that the way the bill is worded, “ is open to too many abuses,” and “it’s simply just way too dangerous,” and he asked the government to reconsider the passing of this bill in its present form.

At Friday’s House Meeting, Prime Minister and Queen Square area rep, Dean Barrow, disclosed that the intercepts have been in effect for nearly three decades since Independence. Ministers with responsibility for internal affairs have issued a series of “lawful intercept orders,” going back to October 1981, Barrow indicated, citing one by former police minister, CLB Rogers. There was no oversight from the judiciary authority at that time the orders were issued, the Prime Minister added.

He also pointed to orders issued by Curl Thompson and George Price. Barrow said he did not authorize any such orders while he held the portfolio for national security.

“During the last administration headed by the member for Fort George [Musa], the police continued to intercept communications of members of the public, this time doing so without using any warrants...since we took over Telemedia, you see, it was confirmed to us by the Telemedia people that under your last government, Dean Boyce gave the instructions upon the request of your government, the government of the member of Fort George ran wires from the exchange at St. Thomas Street to a room on the ground floor—they describe it as the basement of the Racoon Street police station—[and] used that infrastructure to tap landlines...” Barrow furthermore disclosed.

Musa, who did not hold the national security portfolio, took issue with Barrow’s statement and asked him to withdraw it, indicating that there is no evidence that he, Musa, personally did anything. Barrow retorted that as a part of the government, the now Opposition members bore collective responsibility.

Speaking about the amendments to the firearms legislation, again the Opposition expressed concerns that the law casts a wide net that could land innocent people behind bars, being remanded without bail for two weeks. Barrow argued that the bill speaks of not less than 10 working days as the limitation, after which an accused person can apply for bail.

Ten working days equals fourteen calendar days, Musa elaborated.

Apart from passing the new crime measures, the House of Representatives also passed a bill for the recall of elected area representatives. Musa pointed out that no reason has to be given for the recall by referendum to be initiated, and there is no second chance for the person removed via recall to redeem herself or himself at the by-election. He also said that the fact that no explanation is required for the recall leaves the door open for abuses.

Barrow opined that the Opposition was being hypocritical, because when the recall bill went for discussion to committee—where changes could have been recommended—no one from the Opposition showed up for the meeting.

While nine bills total were passed, Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment Gaspar Vega introduced a bill for a six-month land tax amnesty which would offer discounts for persons with accounts in arrears. Vega said that the Land Tax Partial Remission of Arrears Bill proposes that the government waives one-third of the outstanding tax plus interest and penalties.